NEW YORK CITY — Senior co-captain Gretchen Gregg grabbed a rebound and dribbled straight for sophomore point guard Lauren Benson at the top of the arc. You would have thought the game was still in contention, until the two players smiled with joy, and Benson heaved the ball to the ceiling as the clock expired and the team mobbed the floor.
Using unmatched efficiency on both ends of the floor, Cornell never relinquished the lead and toppled Dartmouth, 64-47, in the playoff game to determine the Ivy League’s NCAA bid. The win capped the greatest season in Cornell women’s basketball history, with the team scoring 1889 points and winning 20 games, an Ivy title and an NCAA Tournament invite: all for the first time in its 37-year history.
“You can’t even put into words how far this program has come,” said Gregg, who played on the last-place 2004-05 squad that won one game in the Ivy League. “To go from last to first is an amazing, amazing experience.”
“[Clinching an NCAA bid] is like a dream,” said junior co-captain Moina Snyder, a transfer in her last year of eligibility, who led the Red with 14 points while grabbing five rebounds. “We came out really strong and focused. Our focus was going to be on rebounds, good ‘D’ and just attack them. We didn’t give them room to breathe.”
Already the co-Ivy League champions with Harvard and Dartmouth — all of whom owned an 11-3 Ivy record — Cornell received a randomly chosen bye to the March 16 championship contest. Dartmouth defeated Harvard two days prior to earn its opportunity to face Cornell.
Cornell stormed out to an 11-0 advantage and never allowed Dartmouth within single digits of the lead after only six minutes of play. The Red, who led the Ancient Eight in scoring margin and was second in points allowed per game, shut down the conference’s second-worst scoring attack, limiting the Green to 28.8 percent shooting and 1-for-11 from 3-point range.
“What we were focusing on was rebounds and penetration defense,” said sophomore Allie Fedorowicz, who scored 10 points and tied Gregg for a game-high with two 3-pointers. “I think early in the game, we set the tone and contained penetration and we got a lot of boards. They score a lot on second chances, so to keep them away from that, they couldn’t put the ball in the net and that was great for us.”
Cornell out-rebounded Dartmouth 40-37 — grabbing nine more defensive rebounds than the Green — and registered eight steals to Dartmouth’s three. Gregg and junior Ivy League Player of the Year Jeomi Maduka had eight rebounds apiece to pace the Red, Benson had five rebounds, five points and a game-high six assists, and junior Sun columnist Shannan Scarselletta grabbed four rebounds and scored 11 points. Junior Lacey Workman had four rebounds, four points and two steals.
“I feel like our defense always fuels our offense,” said Maduka, who registered game-highs with 14 points, two blocks and three steals.
And that certainly seemed to be the case. Dartmouth came into the game with the No. 1 scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense in the league, but faced a Cornell offense that led the league in scoring and field-goal percentage. As the Red shut down the Green offense on one end, the Green was unable to contain the Red offense on the other: four Cornell players registered 10 points or more.
The win was doubly sweet for Maduka and the Red because, only a week earlier, the team almost missed the opportunity to play at all. On Feb. 29, Cornell entered the weekend ahead of Harvard by one game and Dartmouth by two, with four games remaining. Having swept the pair two weekends earlier, a repeat performance would have assured it of a piece of the Ivy title.
Instead, the team lost to Dartmouth that Friday, and then, with Maduka out against Harvard because of her participation in the Heps championships in track, the Red lost to the Crimson the next night. Those losses pushed Cornell into a second-place tie with Dartmouth and moved Harvard to the top as the teams headed into the final weekend of the season.
But Harvard went 1-1 that weekend — losing the final game of the regular season — with both Dartmouth and Cornell sweeping their weekend matchups, clinching the Ivy title and forcing the playoff. And with one team receiving a bye based on the random selection of one of three coins in a bag, Maduka feared she would have to miss the first game — again leaving the team when it faced a must-win situation — because of the indoor NCAA track championships. But Cornell received the bye and Maduka never missed any action for either the basketball or track squads.
“We talked about the second chance this week, and we were not going to waste that opportunity,” said Cornell head coach Dayna Smith.
“On the bench, it was like, until 1:30 left in the game, I was like, ‘we can still lose,’” Scarselletta said. “It’s kind of surreal for me. This is for the best teams in the country, this is for the best players in the country, and it’s incredible to know we’re the best team in the Ivy League.”